Sometimes even the brightest lights don’t shine quite as brightly as they usually do. Even the sun is obscured today, making for a world that is literally and figuratively dim. The fog has been acting as a thick blanket this week, effectively erasing tall buildings, cars, people. It’s a strange experience of the world. My world anyway because I know it isn’t like this for everyone, every where. But something about this viscous overcast resonates with my mood lately.
I’m not sure if it’s the lack of vitamin D, the change of meds, the uncertainty of my future, the quitting of the counseling relationship, or the weight of my job but I am shining a little less bright than usual. And this is saying something because I am sometimes “lovingly” referred to as people’s “little black rain cloud.” I function well (usually) but I don’t feign happiness for anyone. This means when asked, “how are you?” I honestly answer, “I’m not well just now” or “I’ve been better.” Usually people are pretty dismissive of honest answers to that question; they’re merely asking out of politeness. But sometimes people actually seem to care. It’s in those people we find a little bit of sanctuary from the blotted out, dimmed world around us and inside us.
Last night at Kuneo, the worship service/group I attend/am on the fringes of began talking about this idea of sanctuary: how we can offer sanctuary to people who are in pain, who are grieving, who are living in a dimmed world (the song poor unfortunate souls from The Little Mermaid just flashed through my mind, to give you some idea of how my brain really works). The pastor listed several things we can do to bear witness to the pain of others, to do so in a way that doesn’t require them to shine brightly when they just don’t feel that illumination coming from within. These are the suggestions (all valuable and worth exploring further):
1) Don’t take on their pain — this one is important. It seems like it might be a good idea to take on the pain of our loved ones, to carry the weight of their emotional burdens for them; however, by doing so we deprive them of the much needed opportunity to walk through, heal, and grow from those painful emotions. Our emotions, good and bad, are telling us something; they’re our messengers. The internal manifestation of external stimuli. The communication between our brains and our bodies. They’re felt experience. They’re important. So, though we may be trying to show our love for someone in pain by taking the pain away, we are actually doing just the opposite. That shows love for the self because sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our society has conditioned us to avoid emotions, so when we sit with other’s in pain, it is often an instinctual survival reaction to try to get rid of the pain, to fix it, to take it on for ourselves and get rid of it. Whatever it takes to make it go away.
2) Don’t shift the focus — this goes along with the actually doing something for the self thing. Don’t take someone’s story or their pain and make the focus about you. In the counseling world this is called self-disclosure but it’s a tool that’s always used mindfully. Because, while sharing our own painful experiences can make someone feel less alone, they can also sometimes diminish the significance of that person’s pain/experience. And that, is not disclosure done with love. So, before you react with, “oh, I know just how you feel, this one time I…” stop and ask yourself, “whose benefit is this story for, mine or theirs?” And really be honest with yourself.
3) Don’t diminish another person’s pain — I’ve said a little bit about this already but it’s worth repeating and expanding upon because we often do this without even thinking. Whenever we say things like, “everything will be okay” or “aren’t you over that already” we are diminishing the other person’s pain. That isn’t fair to them; it is incredibly invalidating. If you’ve been given the privilege of bearing witness to the pain of another, and let’s be honest, it is a privilege, then just be with them in that pain. Sit with them in the storm no matter how hard that storm rages. Because I promise, no matter how uncomfortable their feelings are to you and no matter how much you want to fix them or make them go away, the person in pain is feeling it with far more intensity and they want it over with just as much as you. But the only way for that to happen is to travel through the pain, to let the storm pass over and through. So just let their storm rage. Take their hand so they don’t get lost. Maybe bring an umbrella.
4) Affirm the depth and truth of grief — I changed the wording of this one a little bit, not sure how exactly he phrased it but I believe it had truth and grief as separate. And, perhaps they should be separate. But, in my head the truth of one’s feelings sort of is their truth. The way we feel and experience the world is our reality and no two people will experience that reality in the same way. However, we still owe it to each other to affirm the truth of each other’s felt experience. This can be as simple as saying, “I hear what you’re feeling. I see you. Your pain is valid.” Or it can be a gesture, taking your depressed friend her favorite tub of ice cream just to let her know you were thinking about her. To affirm something is to acknowledge it’s right to existence. So it’s all the little things we do for each other that provide affirmation. And affirmation is so important in this society because feelings are often regarded as malignancies which must be excised from us with immediacy. In truth, feelings aren’t bad nor are they really good (I know I’m contradicting something I said earlier); they just are. So let them be.
5) Don’t fix the pain — I’ll keep this one short. Pain can’t be fixed. And it isn’t our job to try to fix someone else’s pain. Again, that’s acting with self in mind. It’s trying to escape the discomfort of someone else’s emotion. If we could fix pain, I mean really fix it, the world would certainly be a lot less dim but it might be a bit more dim-witted. Because our pain teaches us something. Every time we weather a storm, we learn and we grow. Every time someone gives us the opportunity to bear witness to that pain, they give us the chance to share in that lesson.
6) Follow the lead of those who are in pain — this last one is a bit tricky. I actually think it was one of the pitfalls of my counseling. My T stopped letting me take the lead, I think because I wasn’t behaving any differently, so without mutual discussion she pushed me onto a different path for healing. This isn’t to say that path is “wrong” just that it denies the validity of the person’s knowledge of their own pain. Let them tell you what they need. Let them ask. But don’t be afraid to just show up if they don’t reach out. Pain can be isolating; they may feel like no one could possibly understand. If they need company, they’ll welcome you into the storm. If they aren’t there yet, then do something that lets them know you love them and you’re there. Then remain at a respectable distance.
Humans are incredibly resilient creatures. We can bounce back from most emotional turmoil. It’s just that sometimes we can’t do it alone. If you have the opportunity to be someone’s sanctuary in dim times, then realise what a privilege that is and walk with them mindfully. The pain of another person is never a burden and no one should ever have to feel like they’re a burden to others just because they feel. If we could all just let the feelings be then maybe the world could be a little brighter, a little healthier. I said this before in A Teacher’s Perspective on Mass Shootings in American Schools, but it’s worth reiterating, just showing someone they’re seen and heard and that what they feel is natural can make all the difference. That small act of kindness and love could potentially stop someone from doing things they regret. It’s people who are in pain who take extreme actions. The only remedy to that, to reacting to painful emotions, is compassion, lots and lots of compassion. Both from others and from ourselves.